Dark web networks such as Tor have been in the spotlight of law enforcement agencies in recent years.
This is largely due to the increased usage of these networks to facilitate criminal activities including drug trafficking, weapons dealing, and child exploitation distribution.
The Tor network is once again at crossroads with the US government over highly controversial child exploitation cases.
The United States Department of Justice recently dropped all charges against a man accused of accessing Playpen, a child exploitation website on the Tor network.
The Department of Justice opted to dismiss the child abuse case against Jay Michaud rather than disclose the classified technological method used to identify the suspect.
Jay Michaud was arrested in July 2015 and was charged with viewing child exploitation images.
This school administrator residing in Vancouver, WA allegedly accessed numerous threads on Playpen over the Tor network.
However, the prosecution suffered a major setback when the court determined that unless the FBI revealed the methodology used to obtain the evidence, it would be deemed inadmissible.
Back in May 2016, US District Judge Robert Bryan issued an order for the government to provide the NIT source code in the Playpen case.
The stalemate arises from the fact that the FBI has the right to keep the source code secret while the accused has a right to examine the said source code.
According to a court filing written by federal prosecutor Annette Hayes, the government is currently not open to disclosing exactly how it employed the Tor network hack to deanonymize Jay Michaud’s internet activity over Tor.
The United States v. Jay Michaud case is part of more than 135 cases related to Playpen access on the Tor network.
According to several reports, the FBI operated Playpen on Tor for almost two weeks after seizing the child pornography site.
During this period, the agency gathered information about the suspects before closing down the website.
The FBI employed the now-classified Tor exploit that they termed a network investigative technique, abbreviated as NIT.
One of the main aspects that have hampered the ability of law enforcement agencies to tackle crime facilitated by the Tor network is its anonymity features.
Using Tor, individuals are able to obscure their IP addresses and browser user agents, thus making it difficult for anyone to track their online activities.
The NIT used by the FBI, in this case, enabled the agency to uncover the actual IP addresses of the Tor users.
At the moment, very little information is available on this controversial hacking tool.
The government declined to disclose the full source code of the Tor exploit(s), forcing the Department of Justice to dismiss the indictment without prejudice.
These cases have raised existing concerns over the government’s limitations in using hacking methods to tackle crime.
There has been a criticism of some prosecutions due to the warrants allowing the FBI to utilize the Tor exploit under Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
This federal criminal procedure currently enables federal agencies to hack systems falling outside the warranted jurisdictions and technically concealed systems such as the Tor network.
In many of the Playpen cases, motions have been filed to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the warrant under the claim that it was not valid under Rule 41.
Internet security experts consider NIT to be malware.
In fact, the aforementioned Tor exploit is only termed as NIT within the federal jurisdiction.
The main reason given by the government about the decision to drop the Michaud case is the protection of highly sensitive information.
However, there is still the possibility that the government may bring new charges on the suspect.
Some commenters have fears that such a decision could have unforeseen implications.
However, it seems highly likely that the Michaud case will not have any significant effects on the other Playpen cases.